Kiosks have been installed in the Isham and Memorial garages in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square, and parking will be converted to the pay-by-license plate system in late May or early June.
By Ronni Newton
The garages in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square are going gate-less, and garage visitors will soon be paying for their parking at kiosks or through the PassportParking mobile pay app rather than using the ticket and gate system.
The pay-by-license plate system is already familiar to residents as well as visitors, and is in use for on-street parking throughout West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square as well as the municipal lot between Farmington Avenue/LaSalle Road/South Main Street, the Arapahoe Road lot, and the Raymond Road lot next to REI.
The kiosks have already been installed, and should be powered up by late May or early June. According to Public Works Director John Phillips, there are 12 kiosks in each garage, at highly-visible locations near the entrances, exits, stairwells, and elevators.
Validation for two hours of parking for Noah Webster Library patrons will continue.
Transition to the pay-by-license plate system for the garages was planned a year ago, Phillips said, and was part of the 2016-17 budget. According to information provided by West Hartford CFO Peter Privitera during the March 2016 budget presentation meeting, the total initial investment for the kiosks was $374,000.
Phillips said that the costs associated with installation of the kiosks, just like all costs associated with parking, are independent of West Hartford’s general fund. “It’s an enterprise fund,” he said, with its own revenues and expenses. “No tax dollars support anything parking maintains and operates.”
In addition to payroll and maintenance expenses associated with garages, lots, and other parking areas, Phillips said that the municipal parking fund pays for maintenance, lighting, landscaping, snow removal, and litter clean-up in West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square. The fund also pays the expenses – including benefits – of the two West Hartford Police beat officers who walk the Center and Blue Back Square.
Phillips said that last year the fund replaced 12 trees and repaired several sidewalks. The fund also maintains the stage at Webster Walk in Blue Back Square and the area around the Noah Webster statue.
“It was our idea to go gate-less. We want to keep the costs down,” said Municipal Parking Division Operations Manager Brooke Nelson. The pay-by-license plate system will reduce labor and maintenance costs and should pay for itself in a few years. Nelson said employee turnover is high, and attrition will likely account for the majority of the payroll reduction.
According to Phillips, the off-street parking rates of $0.75 per half hour or $1.50 per hour have not changed since 1999. The parking garage fees are the same as the off-street lots. The rates will not change with the transition to the new system.
Those paying by credit or debit card will need to pay for a minimum of one hour, but as with the kiosks elsewhere in town, coins can be used for shorter duration parking. The kiosks do not accept bills.
A one-hour minimum is also required through the PassportParking app, and there is a per-transaction fee of $0.25. Adding time before it expires does not result in the extra charge.
The cost savings should avoid the need to increase rates until at least 2026, Phillips said.
A new zone, “203,” will be created for the Isham and Memorial garages. All on-street parking and the Arapahoe and Raymond Road lots are zone “860,” and the lot between Farmington Avenue/LaSalle Road/South Main Street is zone “475.” Nelson said the zone numbers are all Connecticut area codes.
The reason for the different zones is that terms vary. On-street parking is free on Sundays as well as before 9 a.m. and after 10 p.m. There is a 30-minute free parking associated with the Farmington Avenue/LaSalle Road/South Main Street lot.
Garage parking has a fee associated with it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A “garage day” begins and ends at 2 a.m.
“We have 2,500 spaces, and the general purpose is to turn them over as frequently as possible,” Phillips said. The pay-by-license plate system will not only cut downtime associated with malfunctioning gates or peak departure times when back-ups often occur.
“When someone leaves they just leave,” Nelson said.
In addition, the opening of the Delamar Hotel, planned for June, will also add to demand for parking. Studies were done by both Delamar and West Hartford, and there is plenty of capacity because hotel guests will use the garage and other spaces at times when they are not otherwise full, but the gate-less system will make everything run more smoothly.
“We want the system to be robust enough to handle all groups of users,” Phillips said. “The electronic gate-less system puts us in a virtual world that the ticket system does not provide.”
Phillips said this is the direction in which the parking industry is headed. While it requires pre-buying rather than post-buying, there is the flexibility of moving your car within the zone without paying for parking again. It also eliminates the need to pay for another half hour if just one minute over the time.
While the app eases a lot of anxiety because visitors can pay for their parking before even getting out of the car, Nelson said, people should not worry that they are going to get a ticket before they have a chance to reach a kiosk – and that goes for the garages, lots, or on-street spaces.
Nelson said that parking enforcement personnel do not ticket on their first round through a parking area. Unregistered vehicles are noted, but the monitor does not issue a ticket until the second round, and that could be as long as 15 to 20 minutes.
“If a car is still not registered by permit, pay-to-park, or validation,” then they will be issued a ticket, Nelson said.
The 15-20 minutes grace period should be enough time for Noah Webster Library patrons to obtain their two-hour validation, which will be accomplished through a very simple tablet-based system. She created a video (see below) as illustration. Nelson said it will be up to library management to determine placement of the validation tablets.
Medical providers may also decide to offer validation in their offices, and if so will inform their patients in advance. “Businesses that choose to validate certainly can,” Nelson said. They would have to use an iPad or web browser to access the system.
New York Sports Club currently offers a 50 percent parking discount to members. According to Phillips, talks are underway between the town, New York Sports, and Blue Back Square owner Starwood to determine the future of that discount.
“This is not about tickets,” Phillips said regarding the change to a gate-less system. The pay-by-license plate system has dramatically increase compliance and reduced the number of parking tickets issued.
In February, there were approximately 66,000 parking transactions and only 687 tickets, Nelson said.
While some people may get flustered the first time they try to use a kiosk, there are clear instructions on each machine. There is also a phone number posted on a banner at the top of all kiosks for those who have questions about the system. Nelson said callers get a live person who can walk them through the process.
Although the majority of West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square will now be on a pay-by-license plate system, Phillips said the Town Hall lot will remain gated. “That lot has other levels of complication that the kiosks can’t address,” he said, including the need to provide free parking for government meetings.
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